Rental Housing Discrimination: What You Can’t Do When Choosing Tenants

We take a look at rental housing discrimination laws, the Fair Housing Act, who is protected, and what landlords need to know.

Landlord discrimination against tenants when screening applicants is a serious issue. To avoid breaking rental housing discrimination laws, there are certain things you cannot do during the screening process. This is because landlords must provide equal opportunity housing for all tenants and are not allowed to discriminate against any of the protected classes that are defined in The Fair Housing Act.

In this article, we’ll take a look at rental discrimination laws, including who is protected, and outline several rental housing discrimination examples that, as a landlord, you should be aware of.

What Is Rental Housing Discrimination?

Rental housing discrimination laws prohibit landlords from treating tenants unequally. This is especially important when screening tenants and when denying a prospective renter.

Treating your tenants fairly is the backbone of being a good landlord. It’s important to be aware that violating fair housing laws and participating in rental housing discrimination (whether or not you do so knowingly) will negatively affect your reputation and could cost you thousands of dollars in lawsuits and lost rent.

About the Fair Housing Act and Equal Opportunity Housing

The Fair Housing Act stipulates that people who are renting or buying a home, applying for a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities must be treated fairly. To provide everyone with an equal opportunity for housing, any form of discrimination is illegal.

The Fair Housing Act was introduced in 1968 to protect vulnerable classes and prevent discrimination based on characteristics like race, gender, and disability.

Who Is Protected Under the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on the following classes:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Disability

What Types of Housing Are Covered Under the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act covers all housing and situations, barring a select few exemptions: owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family houses the owner is selling or renting without the use of an agent, and housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.

Housing Discrimination Examples

In particular, housing discrimination falls into a few major categories.

Racial Discrimination

You must not specify a preference for a certain ethnicity in your property listing. In addition, you must treat all applicants equally, regardless of their racial heritage.

Age Discrimination

Age discrimination can take various forms. For instance, a landlord must not refuse someone for being either too old or too young, specify a preferred age bracket in the property listing, or even require prospective tenants to use an application process that may prevent older, less technologically-abled applicants from applying.

Gender Discrimination

Specifying a preferred gender, counts as landlord discrimination against tenants, unless you are renting a room in an owner-occupied property. For example, if you are a woman renting a room in your house, you are allowed under the Fair Housing Act to specify that you would prefer a roommate who is another woman for issues of safety and comfort.

Section 8 Discrimination

You are prohibited from disregarding applicants because they are using Section 8 housing vouchers. You may instead use allowable factors to judge whether they meet your minimum requirements. For example, do they have the necessary income to pay rent and support themselves?

Disability Discrimination

You may need to make your property more disability-friendly. For example, you may own an apartment building and currently be unable to show disabled applicants the apartments on the higher floors.

What Can’t You Do When Looking for a Tenant? What Is Prohibited?

There are some specific best practices to follow when searching for a new tenant to avoid accusations of discrimination.

Specifying What Kind of Tenant You Want When Marketing Your Unit

In your online rental listing, the property description is not for specifying what you would like from a tenant; rather, it is to attract as many applicants as possible. It should describe the selling points of your property.

Under this rule, you can’t say, for example, something along the lines of, “This is the perfect unit for a couple without kids,” “Looking for a young family,” or even, “Not suitable for people with disabilities.” Any of these statements could be seen as infringing upon the Fair Housing Act and open you up to a lawsuit.

Denying a Tenant for Being Part of One of the Protected Classes

According to fair housing rules, you cannot deny a tenant for being part of any of the protected classes above. Other characteristics that are not explicitly covered by the Fair Housing Act but are normally protected by local state and municipal anti-discrimination legislation include age, sexual orientation, marital status, and use of Section 8 housing vouchers to pay rent.

Treating Prospective Tenants Differently

When screening your tenants, you must use the exact same process. Give tenants the same pre-screening questions and screening report.

Lying About a Unit’s Availability When Rejecting a Tenant

You need to be honest with renters when rejecting their applications, which includes giving them an honest reason as to why you rejected their application. You cannot say that you have chosen to rent the property to someone else if this is not the case.

Harassing or Intimidating Tenants

An example of harassment or intimidation is creating unfair terms for renting to certain tenants, such as saying you’ll only rent to them if they do something for you. Another example is asking excessive questions during the tenant screening process. For example, you shouldn’t ask a tenant anything that relates to any of the rental discrimination laws, but you can ask questions like “Do you smoke?” “How many people will be living in the unit?” and “Do you have pets?” Always strike a professional tone with prospective tenants and record every transaction and conversation in writing for posterity.

Promoting a Particular Neighborhood to Tenants Based on Their Race, Age, or Gender

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t steer tenants to a particular property or area, as doing so could be construed as landlord discrimination against tenants. If you do want to recommend a unit, do so because of a tenant’s stated preferences — for example, the person may have mentioned wanting a garden, modern kitchen, or view.

Refusing to Accommodate a Disability Request

As well as being prohibited from denying a tenant a lease due to a disability, a disabled tenant can request modifications to make the rental property more comfortable and safe. Most of the changes you are required to make are free or low-cost improvements. However, the tenant may request some major accommodations. In this case, it is best to consult with a lawyer to ensure that the right person pays. It is likely that the tenant will be required to pay for the updates; however, if your property is listed as federally-assisted living, it could be your responsibility to pay.

How Can Discrimination Insurance Help?

Tenant discrimination defense and loss insurance cover property owners and managers in the case of a discrimination claim or lawsuit. Often, property owners and managers assume they can avoid discrimination lawsuits simply by being fair to tenants and not discriminating. However, acting in good faith isn’t always enough — many property owners and managers who had the best intentions have still faced discrimination lawsuits. A discrimination lawsuit can be time-consuming, can cost thousands of dollars, and can negatively impact your reputation. Tenant discrimination insurance mitigates the risks and can be a cost-effective way to protect your rental business.

Avoid Discrimination by Using a Standardized Rental Process

Prevention is the best policy when it comes to rental discrimination. You should have a standardized rental application and screening process that you use for every prospective tenant. Make sure to check that neither the application nor screening process breaches any of the fair housing laws or housing discrimination guidelines.

A standardized process may look something like this:

  1. Create your rental listing on Landlord Studio following best practices, such as by highlighting your property’s best features and not what you’re looking for in a tenant.
  2. Set minimum pre-screening criteria. These should be just allowed factors, such as rental history, income, employment, pets, smoking, number of tenants, and criminal record. If you deny an applicant, put the reason for the denial into writing.
  3. Run a tenant screening report on all of the qualifying tenants and select the best candidate based on the allowable factors. If there are multiple candidates who are equally qualified, select whoever completed the application process first.

With Landlord Studio, you can create a rental listing to share and run tenant screening reports. We also have guidelines on how to create your rental property description, take great property photos, pre-screen tenants and set minimum criteria, and run tenant screening reports.

Learn how you can streamline your rental accounting and management with Landlord Studio →